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Postal historians enjoy finding a cover with many markings on it. The markings help to tell the cover’s story of where it came from, where it went to, and how it got there. They also tell of problems encountered along the way: late arrivals, detours, inadequate postage, inadequate or incorrect address, damage sustained along the way, addressee not found and among the worst, markings indicating a disaster like “crash mail!”
This article focuses on such covers, and the auxiliary markings that help to tell their stories. Specific auxiliary markings are not the focus, rather, covers with a date of December 25 or a Christmas theme that experienced a complex or interesting trip in the mail stream. I present the stories of those covers in chronological order from 1818 to 1988, a span of 170 years.
The first item (Figure 1) is an unpaid redirected folded transatlantic cover from 1818; the year is marked on the inside fold of the cover.
Figure 1. A transatlantic folded cover from 1818 addressed to Dover Portsmouth, New Hampshire and redirected on Christmas Day to Dover, N.H. The redirection resulted in an additional 6-cent postal fee.
The red “SHIP” marking indicates it transited via a ship from England to Boston. The red 12 indicates the rate for the trip from England to the United States was 10 cents for postage and 2 cents for the ship. From Boston, it traveled to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where, on Christmas Day, it was redirected to Dover, New Hampshire, for an additional 6 cents. Prior to 1867, redirected items were charged additional postage. The sender had addressed the item to Dover Portsmouth, N.H., which at an earlier time had been one post office. However, the communities had since been separated into two different post offices. The two towns are 12 miles apart. Thus, the Portsmouth postmark could be considered a redirecting mark as well as a transit mark.
Figure 2. Stampless folded letter of Christmas Day 1833 with the free franking afforded to the Clerk of the House of Representatives. Postmark shows early name for Washington, D.C.
Figure 2 shows a stampless folded letter sent from Washington City (later D.C.) on Christmas Day in 1833. The red “FREE” marking indicates the free franking privilege afforded to W.S. Franklin, who was clerk of the House of Representatives (markings at top right corner) from 1833 to 1838. He died suddenly in 1838 of “malignant fever.”
Figure 3. Through the lines Christmas Day 1863 cover from a Union officer prisoner of war in Libby Prison sent to Old Point Comfort, Virginia. The cover was marked 3 cents “Due.”
The stampless cover shown in Figure 3 is an 1863 officer’s letter from Jacob S. Devine, first lieutenant of Company C of the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteers. As indicated in the top left, he was a prisoner of war in Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. The “Due 3” mark indicates the federal postage due. This is an example of through-the-lines mail during the Civil War. The letter was carried from the prison by private transfer to the nearest Union transfer point, which, in this case, was Old Point Comfort, Virginia. Prisoners were allowed only a one-page letter.
Figure 4. Embossed postal stationery mailed within the city of Chicago that was returned to sender on Christmas Day 1893.
An embossed stamped envelope sent from one pastor to another in Humbolt Park, Chicago, on December 20, 1893, is shown in Figure 4. The large purple “Return to Writer” pointing finger dated Christmas Day 1893 indicates the addressee was not found, the item was returned as requested in five days and was not forwarded.
Figure 6. A 1907 embossed stamped envelope mistakenly addressed to Newark, N.C. and forwarded to Washington, D.C. for an address correction. The envelope was corrected to New Jersey and redirected accordingly on Christmas Day.
A commercial embossed stamped envelope (Figure 6) was sent on December 21, 1907, from Asheville, North Carolina to Newark, North Carolina. Failure to find the company named resulted in the Asheville P.O. sending the envelope directly to the General Post Office in Washington, D.C., where it arrived on December 24. As the markings on the front show, the deficiency in address was investigated there. No such office (or city) was found in North Carolina but was found in New Jersey. Thus, the envelope left Washington, D.C. on Christmas Day and traveled to New Jersey.
Figure 7. The front (left) and reverse of an international airmail registered cover mailed from Chicago to Para, Brazil on November 22, 1930. The cover went through Miami, Florida and Puerto Rico before reaching Para, where the address could not be located. The cover was returned to sender on Christmas Day via New York City.
A registered airmail cover (Figure 7) was mailed in late November 1930 from Chicago to Para, Brazil. It is covered with markings on the front and back.
Although this cover was marked on the front to be sent on the first flight (green writing at bottom left), other markings on the front reveal that the cover was received in Miami, Florida, too late for the “Air Mail dispatch.” The markings on the reverse show that the cover left Chicago Air Field on November 23, 1930. Miami markings indicate it arrived and left on November 24 and 25, respectively. There is a San Juan, Puerto Rico marking of November 27 and a Para marking of December 4 (marked “Late Section” in Portuguese); there are two Brazilian markings, both weak black double circle marks. The writing on the reverse states that there is no Bley Ave. in the state. The cover was then returned via New York (December 25), to Chicago (December 26), and on to the sender via the Chicago Englewood Station (December 27). A lot of traveling for one cover that failed to reach its addressee.
Figure 9. The front and reverse of a penalty cover for the Pan American Union that was mailed on December 14, 1937 to Rio Grande, Mexico, re-routed to Rio Grande City, Texas, where it was received on Christmas Day, and re-routed again to Rio Grande, Zacatecas, Mexico.
A penalty cover for the Pan American Union in Washington D.C. is shown (Figure 9). It was addressed to the Regular Library in Rio Grande, Mexico, and mailed on December 14, 1937. A walk through the various postal markings on both the front and the back of the cover reveals that it was received in Mexico on December 17 and re-routed to Rio Grande City, Texas, where it was received on Christmas Day. It was then sent out on December 27 to Rio Grande, Zacatecas, Mexico. It was received on December 31. On January 1, the cover was returned to the sender. It was not delivered because the addressee was unknown, and the cover was unclaimed.
After 1879, the use of portions of stamps to pay postage was banned by regulation, but some postmasters continued to accept cut stamps if correct postage was unavailable. This was obviously not the case for the Bethlehem post office. Meanwhile, the image on the first city Christmas seal became so popular, it appeared on numerous other city documents and postmarks over the years.
Figure 11. This special commemorative cover took an unusual route to celebrate 1938 National Air Mail Week cover. Though franked with a seal from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, it was mailed from Bethlehem, South Africa.
As shown in Figure 11, the image reappeared on Bethlehem’s promotional cover for National Air Mail Week in 1938. This cover wasn’t mailed from Pennsylvania, however. It was mailed July 6, 1938, from Bethlehem, South Africa! Markings on the cover instruct it to be carried by surface mail to the port of entry, New York, where it arrived on July 29. It was then to be carried by airmail to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and a 6-cent airmail stamp was provided for this portion of the journey.
Figure 12. An Italian postal card from an American prisoner of war with both Italian and American censor markings. The year is most likely 1940 as this was when the writer was serving in France, wounded and taken prisoner.
The two sides of an Italian postal card from an American prisoner of war during World War II are shown in Figure 12. The card was exempt from “postal taxes” (Esente Da Tasse Postali) and bears markings indicating that it passed examination by both Italian (black double circle marking at top right of card shown at right) and American (purple markings at left side of card shown on left) censors. The POW was Alexander McElwain, a volunteer in the Ambulance Corps of the American Field Service, who drove ambulances during the war. He was wounded during the war (the message refers to his “bad leg of lead”) and later decorated for his war efforts. Dated December 25, the year was probably 1940 as he served with the unit in France that year.
Figure 13. A Christmas Day 1952 cover from Korea with an unusual marking for the free franking privilege of U.S. soldiers during wartime.
U.S. soldiers during times of war are allowed to send first class mail without charge. An example of one such free frank is shown in Figure 13. The auxiliary marking used is quite different from merely marking the item as “soldier’s mail.” This was sent from Korea on Christmas Day 1952 via the Army-Air Force Postal Service.
Figure 14. A card postmarked Christmas Day 1953 with auxiliary markings for special handling of film. Note the use of the Special Handling stamp to pay the 20 cents for this service.
A special mailing card postmarked on Christmas Day 1953 in Boise, Idaho (Figure 14) include auxiliary markings concerning the need to add special handling when mailing film. This was used on fourth-class mail to secure expeditious handling accorded to mail matter of the first class. The use of this special handling required that the number for the government regulation governing such shipments be printed clearly on the address label. This was not only done, but the 20-cent Special Handling stamp was actually used to pay this fee for the film to be mailed to the Hope Group in Raiford, Florida.
Figure 15. A registered international cover recovered from the December 25, 1954 crash of a BOAC Stratocruiser in Prestwick, Scotland.
The most dreaded auxiliary markings concern disaster mail. However, such mail later becomes very collectible. One such item is shown in Figure 15. Its auxiliary marking in purple identifies the item as salvaged mail, aircraft crash, Prestwick on December 25, 1954.
Figure 16. A Christmas card recovered from the December 25, 1954 crash of a BOAC Stratocruiser in Prestwick, Scotland.
This is a registered cover mailed two days earlier in London from Barclays Bank to American Security Trust Co. in Washington, D.C. The crash involved a BOAC Stratocruiser landing at Prestwick, Scotland. After a heavy landing, the plane ran onto the runway, bounced up and crashed. Pilot error was thought to be the cause of the crash, though other theories exist. One theory is that the crash was planned so that $3 million in diamonds aboard the plane could be stolen. The theory suggests that the plane was blown up as it was landing. In the resulting confusion, the diamonds were stolen as they were never recovered from the crash site. A Christmas card also recovered from the crash is shown (Figure 16).
Figure 18. A large commercial cover damaged by the U.S. Postal Service with an auxiliary marking dated Christmas Day 1988.
Figure 18 shows a large cover that was afforded rough treatment by the U.S. Postal Service on Christmas Day 1988. The image probably brings back unpleasant memories to each of us. The auxiliary marking on this cover states the obvious: Damaged in Handling in the Postal Service.
Figure 19. A whimsical auxiliary marking on a cover mailed from Santa Claus, Indiana that was apparently damaged by fire. The auxiliary marking explains that the damage was caused when St. Nicholas’ whiskers caught fire in chimney.
The item saved for last in this article involves a whimsy auxiliary marking (Figure 19). The cover postmarked Santa Claus, Indiana, on Christmas Day 1930 is a fire-damaged cover from a hotel in Cleveland. It is addressed to an individual in the Stamp Department of Bunows & Co., also in Cleveland. The auxiliary marking states, “Damaged When St. Nicholas’ Whiskers Caught Fire in Chimney at Santa Claus, Ind. 12-25-30.” The note inside, also damaged, states “No — not an accident cover — just a note to wish you a very Merry Christmas and a most Prosperous New Year.”
In 1973, Christine C. Sanders received her Ph.D. in medical microbiology and immunology from the University of Florida, and joined the faculty of Creighton University School of Medicine. During her tenure, she developed the Center for Research in Anti-Infectives and Biotechnology and authored over 200 publications of original research in peer-reviewed journals, and book chapters. She served for 10 years as editor for Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, the leading scientific journal in the field. After retirement as Professor Emerita in 2001, she returned to her native Florida where she took up art and philately as vehicles to maintain her writing and creative activities. She considers herself a postal historian with special interests in postmarks, Christmas, the Star Spangled Banner, and crabs. She is the editor of the Yule Log for the Christmas Philatelic Club. Please visit its website, www.ChristmasPhilatelicClub.org as the club invites you join in celebrating Christmas every day.